Alliance Defense Fund's Chief Convert

Alan Sears recalls when 'the Body of Christ was AWOL' on religious liberty and the ADF was born.

Alan Sears
Alan Sears (photo: Alliance Defense Fund)

Alan Sears is one Catholic convert who remains very attached to his Protestant heritage. Raised as a Baptist, Sears says the writings of Blessed John Paul II were a powerful influence leading to his conversion in the summer of 1988, shortly before his marriage to his wife, Paula, a cradle Catholic.

But he’s still intimately connected to his faith community of origin: Sears serves as president of the Alliance Defense Fund, the legal organization 35 evangelical and Protestant ministry leaders formed in 1994 to uphold America’s religious freedom.

Sears spoke with Register correspondent Tom McFeely about his organization’s ecumenical character and some of its accomplishments.

How did the formation of the Alliance Defense Fund come about?

In the early ’90s, a number of people of different faith backgrounds began to talk to each other about grave concerns with the loss of religious liberty in the court system. And they basically discovered that the community of faith — the body of Christ, the Christians, however you want to describe it — was AWOL.

And, so, they said, “Well, what we ought to do is form a response.” The idea was: Let’s get as many people as we can across faith lines to stand together and defend the things we can agree on. In their conversations that came to be three things: our religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and the preservation of marriage and the traditional family. Those were the three things everybody could agree on, and they asked me if I’d be the first leader of the organization.

What were the Alliance Defense Fund’s first cases?

The mission of the ADF from the outset was three things: strategy, training and funding, all to further litigation. As we were launched, we did not have any attorneys on the staff other than myself, and so we began to fund a number of cases as we raised money. There were two Supreme Court cases that came within our first year: The Rosenberger case and the Boston parade case, which is called Hurley.

Hurley involved veterans in Boston who held an annual parade to celebrate America and American values. A group of homosexual advocates came to that group and said, “Hey, you’re marching on public streets. We demand to march in your parade.”  The veterans said, “No way; we will not allow you to march in our parade because your message is not consistent with ours. This is a privately funded and privately run parade, even though it’s on public streets.” And they found a volunteer lawyer who would help them, and they began to fight. They lost the case in every court, every human-rights body, and they lost even in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Much of this was going on before the ADF existed.

They were out of funds, they needed help, and we agreed to fund their volunteer attorney, Chester Darling, who had literally gotten to the point he was cashing in his IRAs to help these people because he was so committed to their cause. We loved Chester. We brought him down to Washington, we did a moot court from some of the brightest Supreme Court practitioners in the country, and we helped put together the court briefs. And by the grace of God, it was a 9-0 win before the U.S. Supreme Court. That decision was later part of the precedent to win the Boy Scouts case when they were challenged in Dale.

In the same session of the court was the case of Ron Rosenberger. Ron was a student at the University of Virginia who had started a little Christian newspaper called Wide Awake. He raised money for a while, got it out, then he ran out of money and wanted to continue his paper. And he looked around and he said, “How come all these other campus newspapers and student groups have student fees’ funding, but I don’t?” So he applied for the money, and, basically, they told him that Christianity is not part of the culture, that the other entities that are being funded are cultural groups.

Ron didn’t take too well to that, and he found a volunteer lawyer. They went through the courts. They lost in federal district court; they lost in the Fourth Circuit. And then we came along. We raised money, and we funded the petition for certiorari that asked the Supreme Court to hear their case. When the court agreed, we funded the costs of the case and a number of amicus briefs. And we won that one, 5-4, holding out the principle that you can’t discriminate on viewpoints just because it’s a religious entity. That case has been cited more than 1,500 times now in federal-court decisions.

So those were a couple of very important first cases.

When Father Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson and other prominent leaders formed Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1997, they declared in their foundational statement that “we defend religious freedom for all. Such freedom is grounded in the dignity of the human person created in the image of God and must be protected also in civil law.” That sounds very close to the Alliance Defense Fund’s philosophy.

Absolutely. Earlier, John Paul II had provided a document to the Helsinki Commission very early in his papacy, where he talked about basic premises from natural law relating to religious freedom for individuals and communities. I have now distributed copies of that document to hundreds of evangelicals and Protestants, and we’ve found almost a 100% unity in terms of using the definitions that John Paul II laid out there. When we go back and talk about first principles, on the areas where the Alliance Defense Fund is called to serve, there is absolutely no significant distinction.

One other principle that I’ve found out is very important and that I’ve talked to all the other leaders about is John Paul II’s concept of ecumenism. In the world today, there’s this touchy-feely idea of ecumenism. A bunch of people get together in a room, they ignore the elephants, and they basically pretend that everything is wonderful and nobody disagrees on anything. And they come out with these little feathery statements that go nowhere.

John Paul II had almost the opposite view: He said that the best ecumenism is when you acknowledge your differences. And so we go into that room, we talk about what you can agree on, and when you leave the room, you leave in absolute unity on those things that draw you together.

In 2003, you authored The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today. Why does this agenda pose such a threat?

Because no compromise is possible with the agenda, and those who advocate the agenda want to not only stop all disagreement — they want to punish anyone who does. It’s a form of totalitarianism.

Let’s just think about a couple of specific examples: They want to redefine marriage. Marriage was the first institution, created in the Garden [of Eden]. It predates all human institutions; it’s not something man can define. There’s no record of any government in the history of the world redefining marriage to include same-sex couples until this present era. But those who want to redefine marriage not only want to redefine marriage for everyone, they also want to stop all pockets of resistance. They say that a Methodist camp in New Jersey that doesn’t want to allow its facility to be used for same-sex ceremonies should lose its tax-exempt status and should be subjected to human-rights violations. That’s one of our clients.

In different forums they say that no one should be allowed to refuse to marry, so if you’re a clerk in Massachusetts or in New York, where marriage has been redefined by judicial fiat or other action, you’ll lose your job if you refuse to participate in a ceremony. If you’re a photographer in New Mexico and you won’t photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, you should not be allowed to be in business; you should pay money to the lesbian couple who want to have their photos taken by you and not by anybody else.

This agenda is one that believes in taking no prisoners. It’s the opposite of tolerance — it’s about punishing those who disagree. And the target is above else the faithful to the Scripture and to the word of God. They hate every church that opposes their redefinition.

What are the major accomplishments of the Alliance Defense Fund that you are most pleased about?

There are so many things to be thankful about, but among the things I am most thankful for are our Blackstone Legal Fellowship graduates. In 2000 we said, “There’s got to be a better way for law students in America and for young lawyers than we currently have.” And we created this program.

Blackstone was the English lawyer who put the English common law into written form, and among other things, in his writings, he said that any law of man that does not conform to the laws of God is ultra vires, or invalid. That’s a pretty good starting point. This is somebody the founders of our country studied, who had a very important role in the U.S., all the way up to forming Lincoln.

We started Blackstone with a nine-week summer program; we grew it from 24 students in the year 2000 to this past summer with 133 students. We have 1,075 graduates of the program. It’s not just a summer program; it’s the beginning of a lifelong relationship, a network of educating, equipping and empowering these young men and women to stand for their faith firmly in the law.

What’s next for the Alliance Defense Fund and for Alan Sears personally?

More of the same. With God’s grace, what we want to do is to continue to expand significantly the effort in every area. We want to reach more law students; we want to reach and train more lawyers — we’ve trained a little over 1,500 lawyers now, who have given us a tremendous amount of volunteer time that they’ve reported back to the organization.

We and our allies have litigated now into the thousands of cases that we’ve been involved in. But we still have many, many things that are decided by default. And so what we hope to do is to continue to see the growth of each of our areas of ministry and to increase the number of lawyers that are involved, the number of law students, and to empower, equip, fund and support dramatic growth on every front.

Register correspondent Tom McFeely writes from Victoria, British Columbia.



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